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Noodle craft for novices


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POSTED: Wednesday, August 26, 2009

The only reason anyone makes noodles by hand anymore is for the fun of it, because it feels wholesome and real and connects you in a deep way to the past. Also, homemade noodles taste better — and if you don't believe that, make some yourself and see if you don't taste the care that went into every strand.

People are often surprised by the idea that Asian noodles can be made at home without special training, especially if they've seen professional masters at work on TV. But for rustic, everyday fare, Asian wheat-based noodles can be mastered quickly, without any of the equipment needed for European pastas.

“;Mian”; is the generic term for noodles in China, which is the birthplace, along with Italy, of noodles worldwide. From “;mian”; or “;mein”; we get ramen, saimin, pancit mian, etc. The basic Chinese wheat noodle is not significantly different from its Italian cousin, containing flour, water, salt and sometimes egg.

The main differences are in the flour. Italian pastas use durum, a hard wheat rich in gluten proteins. The glutens make the dough strong and elastic, which is why dried Italian pasta cooks up chewy and firm. Fresh pastas and egg noodles use a softer flour that relies on egg for strength, flavor and color.

Chinese mein also use a softer, lower-protein flour that is easier to pull or roll out. To keep the dough springy, an alkaline salt (such as baking soda, lye water or potassium carbonate) is often added, lending the dough its characteristic yellow color.

A soft, white, eggless wheat noodle from China evolved into Japanese udon, and the buckwheat noodle is also best known in its Japanese version, soba.

BASIC TECHNIQUES

Whether you are making mein, udon or soba, mix the dry ingredients together first, then the wet, before combining them. Add the water gradually so the texture goes from sandy to just sticking together — the total amount will vary each time, and might be twice as much in the desert in summer as in Waiahole in winter.

As soon as the dough will clump in your hands, start kneading inside the bowl, rotating the dough and using the heel of your hand to compress it. When all the crumbs will stick to the dough, move it to a floured cutting board and keep kneading. The traditional technique is somewhat like wedging clay (if you are a potter): rotate slightly and push, rather than folding the dough in half and rotating it 180 degrees, as bread bakers do.

After five or 10 minutes, the dough should grow smooth and springy. Experience will tell you how much kneading is enough, but Japanese soba masters tell you to do it “;500 times,”; which adds up to about twice as long as you'd really like.

At this point the dough is usually rested so the water can permeate and the glutens can develop. Wrap the ball in plastic wrap and leave it on the counter for 30 minutes to two hours (no longer if raw eggs are used). Eggless dough is sometimes left out for three or four hours, especially in cold climates, so it will be easier to work.

When you are ready, roll the dough out on a floured board. Plan this out so the noodles will be easy to cut. First divide your dough into pieces of about baseball size, and roll them one at a time while keeping the others wrapped. Roll into a circle first, and when it is just 1/8 inch thick, start rolling into a rectangular oval.

Japanese soba masters use a wooden dowel around 2 inches in diameter that helps roll the dough evenly. Every few turns, they wrap the dough diagonally around the dowel itself and roll it back and forth to even out the thickness from center to ends. The goal is to get an even rectangular sheet of about 1/16 inch.

Flour the surface of the sheet well, then fold it accordion style into a packet that will fit under a sharp chef's knife. An Asian-style cleaver is good for this. Now, quickly slice about 10 noodles 1/16 inch thick, or as thin as practical, then sprinkle the pile with a little flour before separating them and laying them individually on a tray (I use large Styrofoam meat trays lined with wax paper).

Don't worry if some of them break — they will still taste fine — but noodles that clump together will have hard, uncooked parts, so be sure to unfold all the individual strands. At this point you can wrap them in plastic and refrigerate, leave them out to dry (if eggless) or freeze them, though it's best to cook them right away.

Fresh noodles cook quickly, and the water will turn frothy from all the starch. Lower the heat to a simmer, and add a half cup of cold water if they threaten to boil over. Japanese cooks often save a cup of the starchy cooking water to add to dipping sauce at the end of the meal, which is consumed as a soup.

After draining, wash the noodles vigorously in running water, which helps remove excess starch and “;set”; the noodles so they don't stick together. Soba noodles are further firmed up in ice water before draining.

Udon noodles differ from mein in that they use a flour with a little more gluten, so they cook up more thick and chewy. In the West we approximate this by using bread flour. A little oil is sometimes added to make the dough easier to work. Udon dough is quite springy, so after 10 minutes of kneading, you will be quite tired.

One technique recommended by Harumi Kurihara in “;Harumi's Japanese Home Cooking”; is to put the dough in a large zip-top plastic bag and step on it until flat. Take the dough out, roll it thin, then fold it in quarters and repeat. Do this four times before leaving the dough to rest for several hours.

The dough will still fight back when you try to roll it, but it only needs to be about 1/8 inch thick. Fold it in thirds, like a letter, and slice 1/8-inch noodles. Since they are thick, these take 5 to 7 minutes to cook.

SOBA CAN BE TRICKY

Soba noodles present different challenges. Buckwheat protein does not form glutens, making it nearly impossible to stick together and roll out. That's why regular wheat is usually added, from half-and-half for novices to as little as 20 percent or less for soba masters.

Buckwheat also absorbs a lot of water, so you will see soba masters stir, squeeze and break up the dough endlessly as they add water, sometimes for five to 10 minutes as they squeeze it into lumps, then break them apart, stir the bowl and repeat. At this point the dough should stick together in a ball quite easily.

Knead for five to 10 minutes — the dough will be quite stiff — then let it rest for one to three hours.

Cut soba noodles as thin as you can, and resist the temptation to use an extrusion-type pasta maker; the fragile dough will tear apart before noodles form.

I usually substitute the “;white”; whole wheat made by King Arthur's for all-purpose flour, for a more wholesome, and toothsome, noodle.